Film & TV

Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘While We’re Young’: Gen-X Truth Versus Gen-Y Fake Truth

BY Mark Jackson TIMEJune 17, 2022 PRINT

The fairly fun “While We’re Young” is about the shifts in integrity and outlook between Generation X and Generation Y regarding filmmaking.  More specifically, it’s about the truthful documentary versus the faux, faked documentary.

Here’s a generational difference: In trad (boomer) rock-climbing of the 1960s and ’70s, the rules were (and still are) to figure out the challenges as you go, from the ground up. The original mountaineering ethics championed adventure, courage, facing down fear, and controlling your mind.

In the 1980s, Generation X “hang-doggers” dropped down on climbing ropes from cliff tops to pre-inspect routes and drill bolts, putting safety first. This turned the sport into safe, gymnastic fun. The ability to test and grow one’s inner character through danger went missing.

Today’s Generation Y often yearns for and pays tribute to a romanticized, 1970s era analog authenticity, while being profoundly, scarily (often hypocritically) in virtuoso command of all things digital (which strangely, goes hand-in-hand with an enhanced, advanced understanding of self-promotion and show business, compliments of growing up with social media). A turntable does give a truer sound than CDs and mp3s. But if you fake your footage, aren’t you a liar? Not in this day and age.

2 Couples

man and woman talk in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) want no children, in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

“While We’re Young” opens with dialogue from Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” which is about a middle-aged architect who, while showing off to a young woman, falls off his own scaffolding and dies.

It’s an apropos selection because when 40-something documentarian Josh (Ben Stiller) meets 20-something documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver), Josh tries to show off (he’s always wanted a protégé) and is yanked off the scaffolding of his orthodox, dated documentary ethics by Jamie’s less-than-scrupulous “whatever” hipster zeitgeist.

Josh and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are the last no-kids couple of their Generation X peer group. Their best friends just had a kid and are applying peer pressure. Josh and Cornelia are not having it.

mothers and babes in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Cornelia (Naomi Watts) living her worst nightmare, in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

Jamie and wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are Generation Y Bushwick (Brooklyn) hipsters who attend one of Josh’s lectures and proceed to butter him up with a laid-back dinner invite that belies Gen Y’s uncanny, precocious grasp of showbiz tactics and schmooze. They’re so smooth that Josh never sees it coming—just like he never notices, as they spend more time together, Jamie’s ever-present, surreptitious phone-filming.

man and woman having coffee in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Cornelia (Naomi Watts) having coffee with Jamie (Adam Driver), in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

Josh Buys a Hat

Josh, feeling a tingling of returning youth while hanging out with his new, Bushwick-ian, Ferris Bueller-like buddy, clichédly appropriates the ubiquitous hipster hat and denies his incipient arthritis.

man with hat in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Josh (Ben Stiller) and his new, trying-too-hard, circa-2015  hipster hat, in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

The irony is thick, as Gen Xers Josh and Cornelia try to stay current and trendy with Gen Y’s iEverything gizmos, while Gen Y Jamie and Darby’s retro loft manifests their joyful romanticizing of everything Josh and Cornelia joyfully trashed in their attempt to purge themselves of all vestiges of baby-boomer-generation influence.

The hipster kids have a caged chicken, giant vinyl collection, VHS, and the ultimate coveted totem of Generation X, Y, and Z wordsmith artists everywhere: a vintage electric typewriter circa the late 1960s.

And Darby makes ice cream. Yup. It’s what she does. If she’d lived three generations earlier, she’d say, “Ice cream’s really groovy, man, can you dig it?” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

woman in green sweater in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Darby (Amanda Seyfried) is an artisanal ice cream maker, in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

How can Josh and Cornelia not want to be like them? Their love life spices right up, much like Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway’s characters did by way of Johnny Depp’s infectious über-romantic character in the hilarious “Don Juan DeMarco.” It’s all very ravishing.

Josh, who’s been toiling in obscurity on his own, decade-long documentary project, much like Woody Allen’s character in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” is so smitten with the concept of having a protégé, he doesn’t notice that he’s the mark in Jamie’s long-con grift of trying to establish contact with Josh’s famous father-in-law.

two men on a couch in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Josh (Ben Stiller) and his father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin), in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

Said father-in-law, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), is himself an iconic documentary filmmaker. Guess where young Jamie ends up? Sitting beside Leslie at Leslie’s New York Film Festival black-tie tribute.

Josh eventually crashes (on rollerblades) this tribute to sweatily confront Jamie’s slick con job on him. As well as take issue with Jamie’s even slicker, faked-footage documentary that he’s finagled Leslie into blessing.

man on rollerblades in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Josh (Ben Stiller) on the warpath, in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

Truth Versus Fun

“While We’re Young” is full of fun scenes, a personal favorite being when Josh’s friend (former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) admits about child-rearing: “Sometimes, you know, the preparation went on for so long, you feel like—we did this already! We don’t need the actual baby.”

The acting’s fine all around. Ben Stiller’s the Gen X Woody Allen, Naomi Watts is funny, and Adam Driver’s considerable charisma demonstrated back in 2015, when he was fresh off the HBO series “Girls,” why he wasn’t a mere flash-in-the-pan talent.

Back to the ethics debate: Jamie’s faked footage is a lot more fun to watch; it tells the story more engagingly. So why do we need the ethics of truthful, pedantically gathered, bona fide footage? On principle? Does anyone care anymore?

Perhaps the answer to the validity of faked footage can be found in the work of that *ahem* great philosopher and composer Bootsy Collins (former bassist of James Brown and the band Parliament-Funkadelic). In his song “The Pinocchio Theory,” he states, profoundly: “Don’t fake the funk, or your nose’ll grow.”

The old guard screams “lies!” The young turks reply, “Whatever!” In 2015, which generation you belonged to, and how you liked your truth served up, was a real question. Now, in the post-truth era of Clown World, we know nobody cares anymore. Least of all the mainstream media. It’ll get worse before it gets better. Better hang onto our hats.

graffiti in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Graffiti in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in “While We’re Young.” (Scott Rudin Productions/A24)

‘While We’re Young’
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Horowitz, Charles Grodin
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Release Date: March 27, 2015
Rated R
3.5 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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